ussoccer.com Q & A with former Women’s National Team Head Coach Tony DiCicco
Tony DiCicco played three sports growing up before choosing to focus on soccer. It’s a good thing he did. The Connecticut native and Hall of Fame coach has made an enduring impact on the game in the United States.
DiCicco played in the American Soccer League and made a single appearance for the U.S. Men’s National Team in 1973 as a goalkeeper. After his plyaing days were over he transitioned to coaching and began to build his career on the touchline.
He worked for ODP and for the U.S. Youth National Team program for several years. He later earned the opportunity to serve as the goalkeeping coach in 1991 when the U.S. WNT won the first FIFA Women’s World Cup. When Anson Dorrance retired as WNT head coach in 1994, he supported DiCiccio as his predecessor.
DiCicco coached the WNT from 1994-1999, compiling an outstanding record of 103-8-8. During his time as head coach, he led the team to win the gold medal at the 1996 Olympic tournament. This tournament was not only the first Olympic event for women’s soccer but it was also held in the United States. Three years later he led the team to victory at the unforgettable 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup held in the United States.
But when asked, DiCicco described a different event as his greatest coaching accomplishment. Below he shared his thoughts on his career.
ussoccer.com: Where did your passion for the game of soccer begin?
Tony DiCicco: “My passion for soccer probably started later than most. Freshman year in college I played soccer, basketball, and baseball. Eventually baseball and basketball dropped off and soccer became my game.
“I had the opportunity to play for the U.S. MNT in 1973. I never was capped but I played against Lazio from Italy. I also sat on the bench when we played Bermuda and when we played Poland in ’73. I had success in the game and I had passion for the game. For me, team sports are so sacred. I loved being part of a soccer team and playing in the American Soccer League and having teammates from Africa, Scotland, or Brazil. You create an amazing chemistry with your teammates and get an amazing education from the game.
“After I finished playing I always knew that coaching was something that I would do. I was already coaching youth teams at the time. I got the opportunity to get involved with ODP as a goalkeeper coach and I later started to work with Youth National Teams. Eventually Anson Dorrance asked Bob Gansler (1990 Men’s World Cup coach) for a goalkeeper coach for the WNT and Bob said ‘Why don’t you try DiCiccio?’ That started a great relationship with that team. I was in the right place at the right time. In 1994 when Anson retired he asked me to take over the team and convinced U.S. Soccer to give this goalkeeper coach a chance.”
ussoccer.com: The first Olympic event for Women’s Soccer was held in 1996. This was the first time that the team was really on the world stage for women’s soccer and had to deal with the media perspective that comes with that. Can you talk about going in to the tournament, getting ready for it, and seeing it all building?
TD: “The team actually didn’t know if there was going to be an Olympic competition for women’s soccer until maybe two or three years before the ’96 Olympics. When it was announced by FIFA and the IOC, it was a tremendous inspiration and motivation for our players. Having the Olympics held in Atlanta was also a tremendous motivation.”
ussoccer.com: The semifinal game against Norway in some ways avenged the USA’s loss to them in the World Cup in ’95. Can you talk about that game and the preparations going in to it? It was a huge moment for this team.
TD: “It was a huge moment for me as a coach because in the ’95 World Cup, Norway dominated us. I don’t think we had a shot in the first half. The game ended 1-0 and at the end we hit the crossbar a couple times but they were clearly the better team and deserved to win and advance. That was a great Norwegian team and they went on to win the championship against Germany in the final.
“I had been preparing the team to do two things in this game. One was having Tiffany Roberts man mark Hege Riise, a great player for Norway a more recently a former U.S. WNT assistant coach. Tiffany is so athletic and she shut down Riise and made it difficult for her to play. Our nickname for Tiffany was ‘The Little Animal.’ I also moved Michelle Akers in to the midfield where she had an incredible game. This was something that Norway wasn’t really prepared for.
“Our team had come a long way from losing to Norway in ’95 and then dominating Norway in ’96. Again, it was a close game, but out shooting them 28-8 in the Olympics, and winning in golden goal.”
ussoccer.com: When did you decide to make the tactical change of moving Michelle Akers to midfield? Is that something that you knew you were going to do if you faced Norway?
TD: “My coaching staff and I decided to do it earlier in ’96. We went to Brazil for an event. I spoke to Michelle and said ‘I want to move you in to the midfield.’ She walked away from me because she looked at it as a demotion; she thought ‘I’m not good enough to play up front anymore.’ The next day I met with her again and I said, ‘look, I think you can help us there but I also think I can extend your career.’ Then it made sense for her.
“So we kept layering that in with the notion that we would launch it in a key game in the Olympics. She is probably the most technical player that’s ever played for the U.S. She could deliver a ball inside right foot, inside left foot, outside right foot, outside left foot. Receiving balls under pressure was no problem for her. She was amazing. So our ability to distribute through her as well as her ability to dominate that area was awesome.”
ussoccer.com: Let’s move to the ’99 World Cup. First, how did you handle all of the distractions in this tournament?
TD: “We were aware right from the start that we needed to be the sales force behind this event. We worked closely with Nike, with U.S. Soccer, and with the organizing committee to make sure we had a balance of when players needed to be available for promotional events and when they needed to be at training. We made it work and players understood that they needed to sell the tournament. We understood if this event was going to reach its potential, we were going to have to keep winning and we were going to have to share in the responsibilities of selling the event.
“David Letterman picked up on it and asked for Brandi Chastain to appear on his show and I knew we had to let her go. It turned out David Letterman fell in love with Brandi and with the team, and he promoted it every single night of the event. That Women’s World Cup took on its own energy and won over America.”
ussoccer.com: As a coach, when an event grows like that, does that change your mindset or what you’re doing and what you need to focus on? Is there a balancing act of dealing with all these external factors and still coaching the team?
TD: “It does change things. As coaches we have to make sure that when the players are with us they’re focused; but we also have to let them go. As the event unfolded, we really had to lean on our sports psychologist, Dr. Colleen Hacker, because I think we were all feeling the pressure. We knew we had to win to keep the event building. So we coined phrases like ‘Pressure is a Privilege,’ and ‘It’s not Pressure, It’s an Opportunity.’ But there was pressure there; I felt it for sure. I tried to make sure the players didn’t. They loved the big event but they also knew that there was a lot riding on every game.”
ussoccer.com: Moving to the quarterfinal against Germany. Take us through that game. It’s not as famous perhaps as the final but nonetheless a game our fans should probably remember.
TD: “The most difficult game was the quarterfinal against Germany. We were playing against the Germany dream team.
“We went down to Germany within the first five minutes and ended up going into halftime down 2-1. The first thing I had to do was just settle our players. I wasn’t pleased with the way we were playing. I knew that after halftime I was going to send them out and we were just going to pressure them all over the field. But I didn’t want to tell them at halftime, I wanted to tell them right before the whistle blew. So we went out and I called Kristine Lilly and said to pressure as much as we can.
“We started the second half very well. Brandi Chastain scored a goal off a corner kick. It was an awkward half-volley that tied the game. If you see Brandi’s celebration it’s all about relief. Later in the game, Joy Fawcett scored off another corner kick and we went up 3-2. Then we had to survive Germany because they kept coming at us. Brianna Scurry stayed calm, kept us together and we survived an outstanding Germany team. To me, that was the most difficult game.”
ussoccer.com: On to the final. How did you choose the Penalty Kick takers for the shootout?
TD: “The night before the final, Jay Hoffman, Lauren Gregg and I sat down to talk about penalty kicks. Brandi Chastain and Michelle Akers were our two best penalty takers. Brandi had been taking most of our penalties for the last two years but then she got scouted. She took them right footed and always went to the goalkeeper’s right. So in the Algarve Cup, we played China in the final. We had a penalty, the score was 1-1 and she missed it because she was scouted. After the Algarve Cup I told Brandi that she needed to start shooting them to the goalkeeper’s left and she struggled with that. So I asked if she wanted to try taking some left footed and she agreed. I knew she just needed to let the goalkeeper see something different. So she would practice them right footed to the goalkeeper’s right and left footed to the goalkeeper’s left.
"So when we were discussing who would take penalties the night before the final, we already knew chances were Michelle Akers would not be in the game. She just wouldn’t be able to survive the full 90 minutes plus two overtimes. We came up with the players we wanted and the only question mark was that Lauren Gregg had Brandi sixth and Julie Foudy fifth. I said ‘No I think Brandi has to take a penalty.’ Her nickname was Hollywood. She wanted to be in that setting. She probably dreamed of taking penalty kicks in a World Cup final her whole life.
“When the overtime was finishing, Lauren gave me the list and she still had Julie fifth and Brandi sixth. I said, I like the list, but I need you to go up to Brandi and see if she wants to take a penalty and see if she’ll take it with her left foot. And she did. Now most people never heard that story because when she scored the penalty kick she took off her shirt and that became the story. But that just shows you the confidence of that woman. In the World Cup final, she took the fifth penalty kick with her less-preferred foot. She was very good with both feet, but she liked to take her penalties righty. She took it lefty though, hit a perfect penalty, and the rest is history.”
ussoccer.com: In 2008 you coached the U-20 WNT in their World Cup. What was it like taking charge of that team?
TD: “The 2008 U-20 World Cup for me personally was my greatest coaching achievement. I took over that team and it wasn’t in a good place. College coaches weren’t giving their players to the U-20 effort because the U-20 World Cup was going to take place during the NCAA tournament. The first thing I had to do was convince coaches [the National Team] was a better player-development environment than playing in college. Coaches started to understand playing for the U.S. is a little bit different than playing for your college. How often do you get a chance to test yourself against the rest of the world, especially in a discipline like soccer that’s a world game? We didn’t get every player, but slowly the players came around and the players we got absolutely wanted to play for the U.S.A.”
ussoccer.com: Tell us about the emergence of Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux.
TD: “The second challenge with that team was that it was a good team, but it wasn’t a great team. We were lacking one of the great qualities the U.S. should have in every event: athleticism. We needed speed so we went out and started looking for players. We were still working to get Sydney Leroux approved by FIFA to become a U.S. international player because she was on the Canadian team for the Russia U-20 event two years prior.
“We found Alex Morgan, brought her in and she had an okay camp. The truth was, when we were deciding who we were going to bring in to the next camp, it was between her and another player and we picked the other player. I kind of was leaning towards Alex but this other player had scored two goals against the Canadian full team when she played for us, so I figured I had to give her a chance. Then the other player turned us down because she decided to stay with her college team. I called Alex that afternoon and when she came back in we had a little talk. I said, ‘Alex you did well in the last camp but I need you to score goals. Not just be a good player, I need you to score goals.’ It kind of just set her free and she started scoring goals and she hasn’t stopped yet. I hope she doesn’t.
“When we went over to Chile for the U-20 World Cup, Alex put on a show against France. She drew a couple of great saves from the French goalkeeper and she hit the post. I put Sydney in in the second half and Syd had a great assist for Alex on our first goal. From then on, those two just took off. No one had an answer for those two.”
ussoccer.com: You were inducted in to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2012. Can you talk about how it felt to receive that honor?
TD: “I think it was a little bit of relief when I got inducted in to the National Hall of Fame. There’s not a coaching category, there’s a Builder category. When you think of the amazing builders out there, I wasn’t sure I would be inducted. So to go in with Tony Meola, a friend of mine, as well as Desmond Armstrong and Claudio Reyna, and to be part of this amazing coaching community, including Anson Dorrance, is very rewarding and I’m very humbled by it.”
ussoccer.com: Lastly, what advice do you have for young coaches who are just starting out?
TD: “Well young coaches, number one, have to get coaching education. U.S. Soccer coaching schools are a great tool. Get yourself around good coaches and use these networks to learn from your colleagues Make sure you take the time to observe the best coaches. It isn’t the Xs and Os that make you special; it’s how you impact players. I was able to observe Anson Dorrance. I had to do it my own way though because I couldn’t be Anson. But when you put yourself around great coaches and you see what makes them special and how they impact and inspire players, you can create your own way of doing it. That’s how you can reach your top level as a coach.”